It is noted in the Methodist School Year book that Marie Ratté or Rattee graduated in 1911 from the Methodist National Training School, but she became a Presbyterian Deaconess upon her graduation. Marie was born in Quebec in 1863, making her 48 when she attended the school. She is not included in the 1911 graduation picture, it is possible that she took a special program due to her age, and prior experience. In 1925 she did not join the United Church but remained a Presbyterian. I have not pursued her story beyond 1925. She died in 1930 at the age of 67 in Wentworth, Ontario.
The first mention of Marie in the Presbyterian records (1912) finds her working with the Presbyterian General Assembly Board on Moral and Social Reform. John G. Shearer, prominent and influential in shaping the mission of the church was the full time Secretary of the Committee. He was very charismatic and possibly Marie was converted to the Presbyterian Church through her work with him. Shearer, along with others had a “vision for a moral and civilized nation guided by Christian influences and standards. They saw Canada as a country where the best of the Old and New Worlds could be continued and where the British sense of fair play and respect for legitimate authority, and such American features as democracy, enterprise, initiative and ability to assimilate foreigners might exist together.[i]
Marie, possibly a former Roman Catholic had worked with “a large urban police force” making her an ideal candidate to speak about the problem of the white slave trade, a common way for prostitution to be described. Shearer recruited her to become an evangelist and she engaged in public speaking. He said of her that, “she would make an irresistible appeal to all people, but in particular to the women of the church.”[ii]More wealthy congregations were asked to pool resources to support the work of impoverished churches, and community centres were added to many Presbyterian churches. Reformers directed much of their work at the family, especially in terms of training and discipline. Sunday schools and penny savings banks were initiated to influence children growing up in the inner city, and sewing classes and mothers meetings were held for the purpose of strengthening family life. It was also their belief that adequate religious and moral training would protect those institutions threatened by poverty and vice.[iii]
The Board of Moral and Social Reform launched an extensive educational campaign to defend policies like the Lord’s Day, Purity in Politics and Total Abstinence, and to promote compulsory school attendance up to age fourteen in every province. It also set about “instituting rescue work among fallen girls and women with a view of preventing others from falling into a life of looseness”.[iv] Perhaps Marie worked on the establishment of the Toronto Redemptive Home, where she appears to have worked from her graduation until at least 1925, except for a few years when she was on leave. The leave was likely for medical reasons, or perhaps so she could care to aging parents. It is also possible that she took a secular position.
This excerpt from her report, printed in the 1912 Deaconess Report to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, describes some of her work, probably in the Toronto Redemptive Home.
Daily talks, personal or collective, with girls of the Home reveal a real desire on the part of all to live a true Christian life. In spite of the great overcrowding and the consequent inconveniences, a spirit of cheerful forbearance with one another, and of true appreciation of what is being done for them is beautiful to see.
This commentary demonstrates the colonial attitude that was very strong in the work undertaken by the church at the time. “Reforms were not aimed at substantial change in social or economic systems, but at a more harmonious running of the assumption of the Presbyterian reform movement [of] the superiority of Anglo-Saxon Protestant morality and culture. [v]
Yet, the content of her address in a series of lectures she gave in Fort George in 1913, sounds strikingly similar to contemporary discourse regarding prostitution.[vi]
A vitally interesting series of lectures on the social evil was given here and in South Fort George this week by Miss Ratte, of Toronto, social worker of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Miss [Marie] Ratte, who has devoted 20 years to this line of work, has charge of the Presbyterian deaconess home in Toronto, which aims at the reclamation of girls. She is at present on an educational tour of the west.
There are now nine homes maintained by the Presbyterian Church in Canada for reclamation work. The church faced the problem of the social evil squarely, and the principle of its campaign was outlined on Tuesday evening at a meeting for men, held in the public hall, Fort George, when Rev. C.M. Wright announced that the church was willing to take any woman who wished to leave a life of prostitution, pay her fare to one of the homes, and take care of her until such time as she was able to find suitable employment.
The invitation, he added, included one woman or 40 – all who wished to begin life anew.
Miss Ratte is, as her name indicates, a French woman. She combines the eloquence of her race, rare insight, a kindly humor, and the irrepressible enthusiasm that has made her work in the social field eminently successful. Although 50 years old, she is still young, full of energy; interested in everything.
On Tuesday afternoon she addressed a meeting of women, under the auspices of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Presbyterian church, taking as her topic the social problem, more particularly in its relation to the Fort George district. On Tuesday evening she spoke before a crowded audience of men in the public hall. Rev C.M. Wright presided, and music was furnished by a men’s quintet.
Miss Ratte dealt with all the various arguments that have been presented in favor of the restricted district in towns and cities. The plea that the restricted area was good for business she dismissed by stating that the benefit to business, if any, was merely temporary, and in the long run, legitimate business suffered. The ‘necessary evil” argument, she stated, was unworthy of human beings. It was an admission that men were lower than the beasts.
Taking up the women’s side of the case, the lecturer drew a picture from her own observation, showing the ravages of the life on those who followed it: the rapid degeneration and death of the woman, and the wide-spread system of recruiting to fill the places of those who became diseased or died. This recruiting system was, she pointed out, a menace to all young girls. Yet it is a logical feature of the entire business of prostitution.
It was a men’s business, not a woman’s business. Men were to blame for existing conditions, for men kept up the demand for prostitution. The remedy was in the hands of men; and the lecturer called upon the men present to do their share towards ridding the entire district of disorderly houses.
The social evil, she said, was contrary to the law of nature, the laws of the country, and the law of God. One of these considerations should appeal to every man, if not all. Man’s duty was to protect woman. If he did not care to protect women, he might at least protect himself from the dreadful diseases that are the natural sequence [sic] of the business of prostitution.
At the conclusion of the address a vote of thanks to Miss Ratte was moved by William Bell. This was enthusiastically tendered by a standing vote. Miss Ratte said that wherever she lectured she had found the principal of the school in full accord with her work.
This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, revised in 2016.
[i] Patricia O’Connor, The Story of St. Christopher’s House 1912 1986, p 8.
[ii] Nancy Christie and Michale Gauvreau, Full Orbed Christianity, The Protestant Churches and Social Welfare in Canada 1900-1940, McGill Queens Press, 1996, pg 63.
[iii] B.Y. Fraser, “The Christianization of our Civilization: Presbyterian Reformers and their Defense of a Protestant Canada, 1875-1914”, (PhD thesis, York University, 1982), p.85, referenced in Patricia O’Connor, The Story of St. Christopher’s House.
[iv] E. Dodds Parker, “Religion and Early Social Work in Toronto”, paper presented at the Conference on the Social Gospel: Religion and Social Reform in Canada, (Regina Campus, University of Saskatchewan, 1973) referenced in Patricia O’Connor, The Story of St. Christopher’s House
[vi] “Series of Lectures on Social Evil – Miss Ratte, Social Worker of Presbyterian Church, Deals with Big Problem”, Fort George Tribune, 13 September 1913: 5. Many thanks to Jonathon Swainger, University of Northern British Colombia, for sending me this newspaper clip in 2016.